BY THE time they had finished and before he could light his fire they saw that the forest that fringed the beach was alive with the moving forms of animals of all sorts. Off on the plains below them they could see little bands of wild horses and strange big-horned animals making toward the lake, while on the shelves of the promontory stood scores of goats looking down at them; watching them with great curiosity. They bent their shoulders to the task of launching the raft then and presently they were poling it out under the shadow of the promontory to a place of safety in deeper water.
Suddenly the attention of all three was attracted by the frantic bleating of the goats on the promontory above them and the rattling scramble of scores of horny feet. Looking up they beheld the little band scattering frantically in all directions and leaping from shelf to shelf, snorting in terror.
For a moment Og could not understand the strange actions of the animals. They had suddenly become alarmed at something. Could it be that the slow movement of the raft had startled them? Was it--?
High up on the promontory a tawny streak flashed along a shelf of rock. All three boys saw it at the same time and uttered gasps of astonishment. It was the biggest sabre-tooth tiger they had ever seen. For an instant it paused on the edge of the shelf and looked down at the scattering goats. Three of the animals had crowded out onto the point of a ledge almost directly below where the huge tiger had stopped. Evidently the great cat had marked one of these as its prey even before it made its first rush, for it had gained a position of vantage above them practically cutting off the goats' retreat. There was no way for the little animals to save themselves except by scrambling along a narrow ledge just underneath that on which the tiger crouched, and so near that the huge cat could sweep one of them up in its great paws. But it was either that narrow ledge or a plunge from the high promontory into the lake below.
Tensed and breathless with excitement the three Hairy Boys looked up at the tragedy they saw was imminent. For the briefest space of time the tableau above them lasted. The tiger crouched. snarling, its great tusklike teeth bared, its lips drawn up, its ears laid back against its massive head and its great yellow eyes glaring. Below it the goats stood on the point of rocks tensed, trembling, eyes rolling in terror, nostrils distended. One made as if to bolt along the narrow ledge under the shelf on which the tiger crouched, but the great cat's paw flashed out and downward, and the goat with a snort of terror bounded back again as the unsheathed nails of the tiger's paw grazed its flanks.
Back to the point of rocks it leaped and poising there a moment looked down at the three boys and their floating platform. Then as if it recognized this as a possible place of safety it leaped and sailing outward in a beautiful, graceful are came plunging through the air toward the raft. And almost the same instant the other two goats followed.
The three animals hurtling through the air plunging downward toward their craft of logs startled Og and his companions at first and instinctively they scrambled toward the far end of the raft in fear of being hit. The first goat struck the raft with a stunning thump and instantly crumpled in a heap and lay still. And the impact moved the sluggish raft ahead just enough to cause the other two animals to miss their mark by a very small margin and drop into the water with a splash that sent a shower of spray over the three boys.
They came to the surface instantly and for a moment, bewildered kicked and churned the water madly as they turned round and round in a circle apparently not knowing just what to do or in which direction to swim. And in that moment Og, recovering from his surprise at the swift development of events, and thinking quickly, rushed to the edge of the raft and reaching out seized hold of the goat's horns and hauled them kicking and bleating on board the raft.
Yapping with the excitement of the occasion, the wolf cub charged at the animals as Og pulled them from the water, but Og with a well directed thump in the ribs sent him sprawling across the raft and made him understand that he must leave the goats alone. Then he cried out to Ru to seize one of the long poles and warned Dab to follow his example. An upward glance told him that the tiger, cheated of its meal, was furious.
The sight of the goats on the raft; the goats that he had marked as his own had aroused all the wickedness that was in the great cat. For a moment it crouched there on the shelf glaring down at the boys and the animals they had rescued. Its long snakelike tail lashed its tawny, mottled flanks in its fury, and its big yellow eyes gleamed with a sinister fire. One glance upward was enough to frighten Ru and Dab into plying their long poles frantically in an effort to get their craft out of the shadow of the promontory and beyond the longest leap that the tiger could make. Even Og let go his grasp on the goats and seized one of the long poles too. But scarcely did he feel solid bottom under the point of it as he thrust it into the water when with a snarl the tiger hurled itself from the shelf and came plunging down toward them.
One hasty upward glance and Og went cold with fear. Like doom itself the beast seemed to hang in mid air above them. Og could see every detail of its sleek white barred belly, and its huge padded feet, with its claws unsheathed. The picture of its rage distorted face, its glaring eyes, and terrible, opened mouth were burned indelibly into his memory. In that moment of horror Og put all his strength into a mighty shove with the pole, and the raft moved gurglingly forward.
Down plunged the great tiger. In mid air it saw that it would miss its mark for the raft was gliding out from in under it. It began twisting and turning its great muscular body then to add distance to its leap. Like all cats it disliked water and it was only its uncontrollable anger that had made it take this mad plunge.
With a splash and a snarl of rage it landed half of its great body in the water but with its terrible fore paws hooked over the ends of the logs, its great nails digging deep into the wood.
Og and his companions dropped their poles and rushed to the forward end of the raft only just in time. There they huddled in a frightened terror stricken group along with the two goats and the cowering wolf cub and their combined weight tilted the rear end of the raft upward enough to make it more difficult for the tiger to climb aboard immediately.
Staring in horror they crouched there and watched the great cat as snarling and hissing it thrashed madly about in the water struggling to scramble onto the raft. To Og it was the most hideous moment of his life. He knew that once the tawny beast had gained the raft they were all doomed. The great cat would make quick work of them. Suddenly he realized that this must not happen. He must not let it gain the raft. He must beat it back in some way. He must do something.
Trembling with fear but determined he leaped toward the center of the raft where their weapons were piled beside their leopard-skin pack, and seizing the first stone hammer that he could lay hand to he plunged toward the rear of the raft where the tiger's great head and rage distorted face glared at him as it struggled to drag its heavy body over the end of the logs.
With a cry half of fear and half of anger Og whirled the stone hammer above his head and crashed it down full in the tiger's face. He saw a great gash open in the tawny skin. He saw the blood gush. He could feel the stone hammer bite deep into the bone. But before he could wrench the weapon free for another blow the huge cat, with a snarling scream seemed to fling itself out of the water at him. Og dodged backward and slipped on the wet logs, and as he fell one of the cat's raking paws struck him a stunning blow in the thigh, the nails hooking deep into the muscles of his leg and almost tearing them from the bone.
With a cry of pain and terror he tried to wrench himself free from the grip of the dripping monster that was dragging itself aboard the raft. But as he struggled he was dimly aware that Ru and Dab stood above him and with stone hammers were raining blows down upon the tiger's head.
Suddenly the great paw that held him relaxed its grip and he started to struggle to his feet again. The pain of the effort was terrible. He got to his knees and groped blindly for the stone hammer he had dropped. But even as his fingers clutched the weapon he saw Ru drop his hammer and seizing a long raft pole jam the end of it into the opened mouth of the tiger and with a mighty heave shoved it clear off the raft and under water. Og saw the tawny body sink from sight, saw a mass of silvery bubbles rise in the dark water, saw the surface grow calm and he knew, as Dab and Ru knew, that the tiger would never rise again.